Tag Archives: history

113: Mother of Pearl Veneer

The inspiration for this week’s post is Carry A. Nation, the famous barroom smasher.   Carry believed that alcohol was the root of all society’s evils, and she  took hatchet to things she didn’t like (namely bars, whisky bottles and paintings of scantily clad ladies).  Though some called her mad, her barroom appearances had the strange effect of *increasing* business for tavern owners, so much so they often invited her to smash up the joint.  Carry didn’t mind, as her message was still being heard.  She was also a shrewd marketer, and sold merchandise to support her cause.  She lived comfortably and even ran a home for women and children whose lives had been effected by alcohol.

Given that I’m actually enjoying a Not Your Father’s Root Beer while writing this post, you can assume I will not be taking up the cause of temperance.  The museum I work for is doing a fabulous fundraiser set in a 1910s saloon, which will feature none other than Carry Nation, as portrayed by my mentor Ellie Carlson of Ellie Presents.   (Happily, our event is sold out, otherwise I’d be selling you tickets too.)  Ellie owns an original Carry Nation hatchet pin, and was commenting that she couldn’t get anything like it to sell in character.  Cue the laser.

Original Carry A Nation pin, as worn by Ellie Carlson
Original Carry A Nation pin, as worn by Ellie Carlson

Ellie’s pin is a brass hatchet that features a mother of pearl head, which cleverly stops just short of the edge of the brass to make it look like it has a wicked sharp blade.  Brushed gold make a nice substitute for the brass, and I finally got to experiment with mother of pearl veneer.

We first played around with mother of pearl in the laser when we tested engraving on different bead materials back in Week 32.  The beads turned out beautifully (if a little sooty.  But that just made the engraving stand out better.)

Shell beads, vector on the left, raster on the right
Shell beads, vector on the left, raster on the right from Week 32

dsc01005Because our event was coming up in short order, I ordered a “pressure sensitive” (aka peel and stick) sheet of mother of pearl veneer off Amazon.  at $25 for a 9×6 inch sheet, it’s not cheap, and I should ave read the reviews better.  The reviews were poor for this seller, and upon opening the package, I found my sheet had the same issues.  Oops.  The iridescence, created by the nacre on the inside of the shell, was inconsistent.  The package was flimsy, just a soft box and a sheet of styrofoam, so the surface was a spider web of cracks.  Lesson learned – find a reputable seller.  Timing and budget didn’t allow for a second sheet to be purchased.

Cutting was a breeze
Cutting was a breeze

The hatchets were small enough, I figured I could find a good spot on the sheet to cut them out.  I went with a full hatchet head design rather than the one with the short back, like Ellie’s pin, mostly for ease in aligning the mother of pearl to the base.  Carry Nation herself had a lot of different styles of pins, so I figured I could take the liberties.  For laser settings, we gave it a little more power than card stock.  It sliced through quickly and easily, though the edges were a little sooty, like the beads.  Not unexpected for organic materials.  (I later learned that when cutting mother of pearl with a knife you should cut from back to front.  It’s a very brittle material – I’m not sure if it would have made a difference on the laser, though.)

The backing came off surprisingly easy
The backing came off surprisingly easy.  I was expecting it to be a little difficult, especially with the cracking on the veneer, the but the sheets held together surprisingly well.
Incredibly translucent
Incredibly translucent

After I peeled the backing off the cut veneer, I had another disappointment.  I didn’t expect the mother of pearl to be so sheer!  I could read through it.  I expected more body, so it would standout from the brushed gold acrylic.  Honestly, it was difficult to even see it was there at a glace.    As a test, I cut out a silver version of the ax.  The veneer stood out slightly better on it, but not enough to make a difference.

This photo was taken at the perfect angle to catch the iridescence. It looks better in photos.
The flaws are still kind of noticeable on the finished piece.
The flaws are still kind of noticeable on the finished piece.

In the end, Ellie and I decided it was better to do the pins without the mother of pearl.  This of course, isn’t a radical departure from Carry Nation herself – she sold a cheaper version of the pin without the mother of pearl as well.   I want to try using the mother of pearl again, perhaps on earrings or accents, where the perfection of the sheet doesn’t matter as much.  But I’m not sure it’s something I would order again.

Because I couldn't resist, I also made up a pin based on this much larger cast iron piece. The laser's half toning capabilities made transferring the image of Mrs Nation's face a breeze!
Because I couldn’t resist, I also made up a pin based on this much larger cast iron piece. The laser’s half toning capabilities (more visible on the left) made transferring the image of Mrs Nation’s face a breeze!

Is Victorian Hairwork Akin to Kumihimo?

So, in one of those brilliant ah-ha moments, my day job as a museum curator collided with 52 Lasers. Have you ever heard of Victorian Hair Jewelry?  Made from braided, woven or otherwise intricately arranged stands of hair, it was popular in the 19th century as a way to remember loved ones.  It was made into necklaces, earrings, watch fobs, brooches and they even would make hair wreaths for the wall.  Kim Poovey’s Victorian Hairwork Pinterest board shows good variety of examples.

16 strand set up from Mark Campbell's 1867 book
16 strand set up from Mark Campbell’s 1867 book.  Look familiar?
16 strand set up.
My 16 strand set up from Week 15

How is hairwork like the kumihimo I made back in week 15?  The original tools are nearly identical.  In doing research on the hair jewelry at the museum, I stumbled across the book “Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description” by Mark Campbell, published in 1867, and now available for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.  Flipping through the book, the patterns look exactly the same.







And the “braiding table” could have easily been a marudi (which modern kumihimo disks were derived from.)  I will admit I’m not the first person who had the ah-ha moment – when I was looking for examples for this post, I saw that the Victorian Hairwork Society sells marudai for this exact purpose.

Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry
Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry.  Image from Mark Campbell’s book

I love it when parts of my life collide.  With the tools being so similar, though, I was curious if they had similar origins.  According to    author of Love Entwined, “European colonists in North America brought a tradition of making decorative objects made of human hair with them.”  Internet sources say the roots of this tradition are fro Scandanavia, (but they don’t site resources, of course!)  The most detailed account is half way down on this page; it tells the birthplace was Vamhus, Sweden.    It appears they already did braiding (so no solid start date), but a financial crisis forced them to sell their wares to the world.

Most sources (again, on the internet) cite the first mentions the origins of of kumihimo in Japan’s Nara Period (645-784 AD). Generally, very little is known about the history of kumihimo – the braids were not considered significant.  The theories seem to agree it came from finger loop braiding, and that it likely came from mainland China.  There are whispers that there is research that has connected Japanese kumihimo with European braiding, but I wasn’t able to locate the original theory or the author.  I found interesting write ups on the the history of kumihimo here and here.

Hopefully this wasn’t “tldr” – I fell down the braiding internet rabbit hole of research.  It would be fun to try some of the hair braids in a modern kumihimo disk. (Horse hair is a good and Victorian-approved substitute if you aren’t ready to part with your own just yet!)